Wake: Up to Poetry
Reading Carson’s “The Fetch,” from For All We Know, Part One
To see one’s own doppelganger is an omen of death.
The doppelganger casts no reflection in a mirror.
Shelley saw himself swimming towards himself before he
Lincoln met his fetch at the stage door before he was shot.
It puts me in mind of prisoners interrogated,
of one telling his story so well he could see himself
performing in it, speaking the very words he spoke now,
seeing the face of the accomplice he had invented.
When all is said and done there is nothing more to be said.
No need for handcuffs, or any other restraint. They take
a swab of his sweat from the vinyl chair in which he sat.
Should he ever escape his prison the dogs shall be loosed.
Your death stands always in the background, but don’t
For he will only come to fetch you when your time has come.
In Irish folklore, “fetch” refers to the apparition of one’s double or mirror-image, rather like the German doppelgänger, which reveals itself as an omen of one’s imminent death. Hence the encounters between Carson’s Shelleys and Lincolns just before their respective dooms.
But why a.) does the doppelgänger cast “no reflection in a mirror,” and b.) what does it mean that Shelley sees himself swimming towardshimself during the final seconds of his life? I’m afraid the answer to both, when articulated, sounds pitifully obvious: because the fetch simply is the mirror, the psychological mirror—which is just a clinical-sounding way of saying the mirror of the soul—in which the distinctions between our first-person selves and third-person self-images reveal themselves as fuzzy and indistinct. The sense of the Shelley line is therefore irreducibly ambiguous. Does he see his image swimming out of the mirror and toward his ‘actual’ self, or does he witness, in the third-person perspective afforded by any well-polished reflective surface, his first-person self approaching itself in the mirror? Does he get to experience, before dying, a God’s-eye view of himself in which first- and third-person perspectives become somehow one? Or does the existence of Percy Shelley as an individual human subject depend on their unbridgeable separation? Would such a union therefore be enlightenment or the moment of death? And what would be the difference between the two, exactly? It seems plausible to me that Shelley—the poet, after all, whose consideration of the way “The everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind” led him to wonder, “Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled / The veil of life and death?”—would have found the questions at least as compelling as the answers.
I’m convinced that a devoted critic could excavate this poem’s debts and relations to everything from Borges’s not-quite-despairing Babelic librarian to Heidegger’s Unheimlichkeit to Aeneas’s tearful viewing of the Carthaginian murals to Hitchcock’s endless file of mistaken identities, but we don’t have to go there. Make no mistake about it, though. This is neither a mere quaint folk-motif nor some purely academic concept describable only in the jargon of postmodern theory, with all its bloodless Latinisms and gratingly clever multilingual puns. The idea is simple, though neither simplistic nor effete. It unfurls, rather, an essential statement (maybe, ironically (tragically), the only essential statement, especially in the most image-conscious and -saturated culture in the history of the world) about us as human beings: that whatever we are, we are it only insofar as it lies somewhere up the road, watching us, we feel, waiting for us always, but never lingering too near…until, of course, our “time,” in the person of its envoy our mirror-image, “has come” to fetch us home.